Oral Care for Dependant Seniors

Barbara Tritz
· June 1, 2015 ·

8 minutes

I just finished reading Dying From Dirty Teeth by Angie Stone RDH, BS.  Quite an eye opener, something I had never even thought about.  Along with this book, articles on pneumonia have been appearing in my dental hygiene journals.  It was time to learn more, and see exactly what this was all about.  

At the same time I read Angie’s book,  I accepted an invitation to speak to a class of students learning to be certified nursing assistants.  These ladies and gentlemen are the front line in helping seniors and other dependent people live better lives. (I know how very important dental assistants are to my profession, and can’t work without their help.  DA’s make my day run smoothly, so I  can greatly appreciate how hard CNA’s work to take care of their patients.) 

CNA’s are asked to do many things to make our loved ones healthier and more comfortable.  Dental care should be on that list but often, because it’s “invisible,” it can get overlooked.   It’s hard to do if you are not trained in it.  It’s even harder to do if your patients won’t open their mouths.  Yet it’s vital for health.  I appreciated the opportunity to teach this class the importance of oral care from a dental hygienist’s perspective.  CNA’s need our help in providing the right tools for a speedy, efficient job.  Our seniors need our oversight to be sure it is done correctly, daily, and with dignity.


Today’s column will address why it matters, and suggest my favorite tools, protocols and procedures to help prevent problems for yourself, your parents or other loved ones.  As always, see your dental professionals for further information.

 For lack of tooth brushing and oral care our senior citizens are dying. 

Aspiration pneumonia

Poor oral care is causing them to inhale oral bacteria, rotting food debris and stomach contents into their lungs, causing aspiration pneumonia.  Sleeping with dentures in their mouths is also a big no, another source for a potential cause of aspiration pneumonia.   Angie Stone’s book notes (page 64) that it costs over $30,000 to treat this when it occurs. That’s not such a pretty picture, is it?

In a previous post, even before reading Angie’s book, I wrote about denture wear, denture care and the connection to pneumonia.  Pneumonia is THE leading cause of death in the frail elderly.  Thirty percent of those with pneumonia die due to aspiration pneumonia.   Read on to learn about tools you can use to improve the quality of life for someone you love.

If the mouth is not healthy, the body is not healthy.

Medical science has worked hard to extend  life expectancy.  We now live longer, but at what cost?  Many seniors suffer from chronic illnesses and are medically fragile.  Seniors aged 65 to 69  take on average 14 prescription medications daily.  Those over age 80 take 18 medications daily.  The most common side effect of all these medications is dry mouth.  (Have you  been following my blog? Then you know I consider saliva to be liquid gold.)

When I see a patient that takes two or more medications, I know they have dry mouth conditions. To me, that means they are at extreme high risk for tooth decay.  Along with more cavities, I also know they probably have a gum infection.  Keep in mind that these are the people I see; the healthier people who come in to see a dental professional at least twice yearly.  

Along with aspiration pneumonia, our seniors also face an increased risk of other oral-systemic connections such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, and thrush.  In those with weak immune systems, their bodies can not fight the overload of oral pathogens that enter their blood system, their stomachs, or their lungs from gum disease, tooth decay, and poor oral hygiene.  That is why we say that if the mouth is not healthy, the body is not healthy.  Lack of oral care in our dependent seniors starts them on a downward spiral of illness, pain and possibly preventable death. 
We can do better.  We have the tools, and for their sake we need to rise to the challenge and see they have the care they need.

Oral care does not have to be perfect.  Do your best.


#1. The toothbrush- yes, it seems obvious, but for those with limited dexterity, function or mental decline, even brushing properly can be a challenge.  Brushing twice a day with an electric toothbrush for at least two minutes is ideal.  

For those administering care: I suggest dry brushing with a manual toothbrush.  No toothpaste, no water. This will get the plaque off, without the foam getting in your way.  Have the senior sit down,  stand to the side of the patient.  (Do not stand directly in front of them.  If they spit, their bodily fluids land on you.)  Curl your arm around their head, cupping their chin in your hand.  This supports their head.  Brush with gentle, small, circular motions.  For those with arthritis, making the toothbrush handle bigger may be helpful.   Foam, duct tape, bicycle grips, anything to enlarge the handle so it is more comfortable to the senior or the caregiver may be helpful.

If they won’t open their mouth, do your best.  Even if you only brush the front teeth and the cheek sides of their teeth, that’ll improve their oral health tremendously.  That’ll at least get the food debris out. 

If they have an electric brush, so much the better.  No dry brushing here, though, electric brushes really need to be wet to work properly. 

Regardless of what type of brush you have, be sure to brush the gums.   Brush into the gums, brush the roof of the mouth, the cheeks and the inner lips.   Then add toothpaste for the freshness.  More on that in a moment. 

My favorite electric toothbrushes are the  30 Second Smile Toothbrush and the Triple Bristle brush.  They are quicker to use, easy to hold, the patient just needs to bite gently into them and let the brushes do the work.   It makes short work of brushing teeth. I still recommend  dry brushing with a manual brush  to clean the cheeks, roof of mouth, and tongue.  

#2. Toothpaste- yes, another obvious product, but which one??   

Some basics first- Only a pea sized amount, regardless of brand or type. Many seniors have sensitive tongues and can not tolerate spicy (to them) toothpastes. It may take trial and error to find a mild enough paste.     

Which do I recommend?   
 Consider a non foaming type.  Pastes without sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) do not foam. SLS is often in many toothpastes, so search the internet for brands that do not contain it.  Gentle toothpastes with mild flavors are best for their sensitive and delicate tissues. 

  Here are my favorite suggestions:
             Toothpastes with 100% xylitol (more on this in a moment.)
              Spiffies tooth gel:  this gel is originally for babies but works perfectly well for seniors and is safe to swallow.
              Livionex Toothpaste- works by repelling plaque for tooth surfaces.  I wrote about this paste in my most popular blog post.

#3. Xylitol- the wonder sugar 

I love everything about xylitol.  If you can not get a toothbrush, let alone floss into someone’s mouth, this may be the best thing you can use.  Xylitol is a sugar alcohol and helps keep the mouth healthy. It comes in mints, sprays, toothpastes, mouthwashes, wipes, even in bags just like sugar. Sprinkle straight xylitol right in their mouth, put it in coffee, be creative, it tastes great!   You can even cook with it, cup for cup.  (Go easy initially, though!  Too much, too soon can cause gastric distress.  Your body does get used to it.) 
-Five serving per day reduces plaque buildup by 60% (and that’s without even brushing!! )
-Protects Teeth from Cavities
-Inhibits Bacteria Growth
-Helps Reduce Thrush, Angular Cheilitis
-Stimulates Saliva Flow- perfectly safe for those with dry mouth
-Safe for Diabetics
-No Aftertaste
100% natural


(I wrote about xylitol in my post entitled Mouth Magic.  Learn more there!  The only drawback is that it can be lethal to  small dogs.)  Giving seniors five servings of xylitol per day in the form of mints, sprays, or toothpastes will help them have a healthier mouth.  Of course, it’s not ideal to forgo brushing but something is better than nothing.   Spry Dry Mouth spray is easy to use and tastes great. 

#4. Dry mouth products- without saliva and oral care, the teeth and gums go downhill fast. Tooth decay takes over and the teeth rot away.   

Pick one or two of my favorite products to try.  Help keep the whistle wet throughout the day:
100% Xylitol -Any product (Spry, Epic, and many others) 

MedActive– “Spilanthes” is an herb that stimulates saliva flow* awesome**
Xylimelts and Oracoat
Act Dry Mouth Lozenges
Rincinol – soothes the tender tissues
Neutrasal – the #1 product for treating mucositis as well as dry mouth
Salese – lozenges

Just to be crystal clear- here’s my NO, NO, NO column:

Cough drops
Lemon drops
Anything with sugar/carbohydrates
Flavored waters, sugar coffees
Gatorade/sports drinks

#5. Tooth decay prevention and remineralization products: We need to kill the bad bacteria, and put minerals back in the teeth. All of these are non prescription:

MI Paste smear some on the teeth and let sit – apply after brushing twice a day
Basic Bites– chocolate  or new carmel that tastes good and is great for the teeth, a win-win in my book. One square in the Am and one before bed.
Carifree – an entire product line to kill bacteria, raise the pH of the mouth, and put good minerals back in the teeth. 

Learn more about  fighting tooth decay in my post entitled: Tooth decay is not okay 

#6. Gum Disease- ideally after brushing you need to clean in between the teeth.

Xylitol: to the rescue again. 

Piksters: easy to use and fast, to clean in between the teeth.  Dip them in xylitol powder and work them in between the teeth.
Floss: if you are extra lucky to have the world’s best caregivers

#7. Denture and appliance care- 

Take all appliances out during sleep.

Soak the appliances and scrub daily with a denture brush (NOT a regular toothbrush).
Dentasoak wins high praises with its ability to kill 99% of the oral pathogens on it.  If you are really dedicated,  smear some ozone oil on the appliance to reduce and kill the fungus.  Ozone oil is available on Amazon. I like Olive Gold O3.  It tastes the best and does not have a strong smell. Rinse before placing back in the mouth. 

When cleaning the appliances- fill the sink with water and hold the appliance firmly, scrub with a denture brush – (again)NOT your toothbrush. 

Rinse well
Be aware of ill fitting dentures.  If they spend more time on the nightstand than in the mouth, see a dentist.  

#8. Weekly oral care with a Registered Dental Hygienist- worth every penny!

Just like your grandmother has a weekly hair care appointment, consider having a weekly oral cleaning appointment.  Grandma’s wash, set and curl was a short appointment.  How about a 10 or 15 minutes basic brushing, flossing and rinsing with an RDH to improve the oral health of you or your loved one.  This would be a shorter appointment than a checkup and cleaning.   Remember, one episode of aspiration pneumonia costs $30,000 to treat.  A weekly visit with your favorite dental hygienist may well be the bargain of the century!

In recap: 
Whether your senior is in full dentures, partial dentures, or is lucky enough to have his or her own teeth, everything in their mouth needs to be cleaned as much as possible.  Leaving food debris, plaque, and bacteria on their teeth or dentures leaves them prone to breathing in bacteria and causing aspiration pneumonia– seriously dangerous to those in frail health.   Much of this can also be applied to anyone with special needs of any age.  

It’s time to stop this epidemic of poor oral care for our dependent seniors. They lack the basics of oral hygiene care.   The pain and destruction it causes is preventable.  We know how.  Aren’t they worth it?

My father and me 🙂

Keep Smiling!


P.S.  I’ve given you a list of my favorite products that you or even your health providers may not know about.  Try them out.  I have no financial interest in any of these.  I use them because they work.  It may take some trial and error to find what works for you.  If you find a different product, please share with me.  I’m always on the hunt for best products to help do the job of cleaning, disinfecting, remineralizing, healing, and improving oral health.

Hello, I'm Barbara Tritz

Unveiling the Stories Behind Dental Hygiene

Loving science, especially biology, from an early age, Barbara is a registered dental hygienist, certified biological hygienist, and orofacial myofunctional therapist. In 2019, she received the Hu-Friedy/ADHA Master Clinician Award from the American Dental Hygienist Association.

Share your thoughts below!


  1. Jennifer Davies

    This is something I've been needing to read. I've been taking care of my grandma for a few months now, just going to her house and helping her with daily tasks, but I haven't checked her hygiene very thoroughly. I wouldn't be surprised if she's been having a hard time cleaning her teeth and showering. I'll check up on that when I go today.

  2. Brandon Roberts

    I am really glad I was able to find this website! My grandma just purchased her first set of dentures, and she is wanting to make sure she takes really good care of them. So I really appreciate the tips you gave on taking good care of dentures. I will make sure I let my grandma know about this!

  3. Barbara Tritz

    Thanks for stopping by and reading about senior oral care. It is an unknown health care crisis among our seniors. Good for you for taking care of Grandma! Be sure to read my post on how to take care of dentures and partial dentures. That's also important! If you need more info, or have more questions, please let me know.
    Keep smiling!

  4. Barbara Tritz

    Thanks for stopping by and reading up on this for Grandma! Glad you're looking out for her!
    Keep smiling!

  5. Allan Francisco

    Hey Barbara,

    This is the very first time i have visited a blog related to dental hygiene and the title of this article persuaded me to make a comment.

    To me a lot people don't focus on seniors' dental hygiene once they are dependent as happened with my granny, by dependent it means that she was completely on bed and sickness made her completely dependent, we focus on their visual health but her mouth health was completely ignored which led to an infection.


  6. Barbara Tritz

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment! You are totally correct – nobody is taking care of our senior citizen's oral health, and as your granny found out, it's vital! Sorry to hear she got an infection. Good for you for being inquisitive and looking for information! Hope you learned some new ideas to help her. If the mouth's not healthy, the body's not healthy. That's why I write this blog- there are so many easy things to do to keep the mouth healthy!

  7. Deanna Jones

    I've always known that it's important to take care of dentures just to make them last longer. It's interesting how the way you maintain dentures can also affect your physical health. I haven't thought about how leaving any food particles in dentures can make seniors more prone to catching aspiration pneumonia from breathing in bacteria left from food. Learning this will definitely change my approach to helping my dad clean his dentures. Thanks for the information!

  8. Barbara Tritz

    Hi Deanna,
    So glad you learned something and can help your dad!

  9. Sam Fisher

    Awesome article you have here! I've noticed that with seniors, some of them get to the point where they just don't care to perform proper oral care. If it was me, I would keep brushing until the day I died or my teeth fell out. In regards to dentures on the list of tools you made, is there a specific method or way to clean/take care of them or just how you see fit?

  10. Barbara Tritz

    Hello Sam,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I agree, some senior citizens do lose their will to take care of their teeth for many reasons. Dexterity, dementia, illness, and mobility are but a few of the reasons for this to occur. My post at least offers some other solutions to help this age group retain their teeth and health. I have a post on denture and appliance care.
    http://queenofdentalhygiene.blogspot.com/2015/03/dentures-retainers-bite-guards.html with information on the best way to care for appliances listed there. I see that my favorite denture brush is "out of stock" though so I may have to update that post. If you have further questions, please let me know. Keep on brushing, and of course, cleaning in between your teeth!
    Happy New Year!


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